Riojitis

Every Friday the Spanish financial newspaper Expansión publishes a glossy full-color supplement devoted to luxury lifestyle goods.  This might seem strange in a country where 20 per cent of the working age population is unemployed and the economy is in a permanent state of stagnation.  Since Expansión is owned by a group that represents the center-right in Spanish politics, the home of the banking and industrial sector I guess that writing about $10,000 watches, vacations in luxury resorts in the South Pacific and $500 cell phones is sound advertising.

Even their blogs cater to the rich.  I laugh every time I recall reading that one of Spain’s best-known gastronomic gurus bought a Rolex with his first paycheck as a young man. Need I say more about the drift of this magazine?

I read it because they often write about wine.  A couple of weeks ago there was a feature about wines reviewed by some of Spain’s best-known actors and actresses.  I thought it was a novel approach because in the wine business we’re tired of reading what wine writers have to say.

One word caught my eye, however:  riojitis.  This word is used all the time, defined as an ailment affecting wine drinkers who ask for a Rioja when they go to a bar or restaurant.  A similar ailment is called riberitis.

Sadly, I know why riojitis is so popular.  Envy, pure and simple.

One of the first books I read when I came here to live was Spain and the Seven Capital Sins by Fernando Díaz-Plaja.  I read it in Spanish but it was available in English too.  It’s probably out of print today but I’ll bet you can buy it from Amazon.  In any case, it’s a good read for anyone who wishes to understand this sometimes perplexing country.

Envy is the number one capital sin inSpain, but everyone practices it, making it the national pastime. I don’t think that too many people talk about it in the confession booth.

Twenty five years ago, Rioja was the only game in town here. Of today’s wine media darlings, Ribera del Duero was just getting started, Rueda was known for sherry-style whites aged outdoors in big glass jars, Toro and Jumilla were  places to buy heavy reds from cooperatives and Priorato was the home of a company that made altar wine.  The hottest wine in Galicia was Ribeiro, then mainly known as a very acidic red wine served in white ceramic bowls with dishes of spicy octopus. La Mancha was La Mancha (and still is).

Of course, times have changed (for the better) and consumers have a wider range of choices than ever but Rioja is still Spain’s most popular wine district, both here and abroad.  Why?  Because we’ve been working longer and harder to promote it than anyone else.

I have some grammatical suggestions for wine writers who are jealous of Rioja’s success.  If you insist on adding Greek and Latin suffixes to Rioja, be honest and call yourselves riojaphobes, because we riojaphiles will keep on trying to riojafy you.   Call me a riojamaniac if you wish but I’m filled with riojapassion.  So there.

Gerry Dawes: “The 1947 Bosconia is the best red wine I have ever drunk.”

After several attempts I’ve finally gotten my interview with good friend, eating, drinking and bullfighting buddy Gerry Dawes, who I’ve said many times is one of the two guys with the most comprehensive knowledge of Rioja.

Here are my questions and his answers, which I have copied verbatim. Hold on to your hats.  This is vintage Gerry, once again pulling no punches.

When did you first taste a Rioja? Do you remember what brand and vintage it was? What were your impressions?

Back in the late 1960s, like everyone else who visited (or in my case lived in) Spain, I drank Federico Paternina Banda Azul. Rioja wines were Spain’s best red wines and I developed a taste for them over a period of several years. I thought many Rioja were great. Marqués de Riscal was a bit of a luxury and so was Cune Imperial and Cune Viña Real, but once in awhile I got to drink them. I still remember finding Cune Imperial Gran Reserva 1959 on the shelf of a Costa del Sol shop for 225 pesetas a bottle when I lived in Mijas overlooking the Costa del Sol. I grabbed all three bottles.

Believe it or not, I still have a bottle of Imperial Gran Reserva 1959 left, a bottle of Cune Viña Real Gran Reserva Oro 1962, a Marqués de Murrieta Castillo de Igay 1942, a Viña Tondonia 1947 and a few other assorted treasures. Early this year I opened a bottle of Marqués de Riscal 1922 that was still magnificent.

During the early 1970s, when I was living in Mijas, through a wealthy acquaintance, I got to drink the R. López de Heredia Viña Bosconia 1942 and 1947. I had the 1942 two or three times, but I have drunk about six bottles of the 1947 Bosconia and I am still convinced that it is the best red wine I have ever drunk. I don’t say this lightly, since from 1975 to 1996 I sold great Burgundy, Loire Valley and Rhone Valley red wines and the top wines of California (Duckhorn, Ridge, Caymus, Shafer, Pine Ridge, etc.) to the best restaurants in New York.

I have a reputation among some writers and wine aficionados in Spain as being a “Taliban,” as a couple have called me in print. They think because I have defended the classic wines of La Rioja that I have an old-fashioned franquista palate. They are full of shit. Few of them have traveled the wine roads of Spain tasting wines in bodega after bodega like I have.  And I have done it, not from a base in Spain, but from the United States.  Between 2000 and 2010, there was a four year stretch when I averaged EIGHT trips to Spain a year and another four years when I averaged six trips per year. I have been in at least 600 bodegas in Spain, some of them multiple times, re-visiting some of them as many as a dozen times or more.  Has anyone else in Spain–besides the owner Juan Gil, the Marqués de Figueroa, been in vertical tastings of Palacio de Fefiñanes Albariños six times?

My experience is not based on tasting wines by the dozens in sit-down or walk around tastings in Madrid, in Barcelona or in New York, it based on winery visits and long lunches, dinners and private tastings with the likes of such bodegueros as Mariano García, Basilio Izquierdo, Isaacin Muga, Javier Hidalgo, Miguel Torres, Carlos Falcó, the Chivite brothers (before they split), the Pérez Pascuas family, Raul Pérez, Ricardo Pérez, Gregory Pérez, Carles Pastrana, Agustí Torelló, Juan Gil of Palacio de Fefiñanes, Gerardo Méndez and with hundreds of other bodegueros, from bodegas both big and tiny.

For the last several years, I have focused on Galicia, where I have visited and tasted in literally scores of bodegas, say 30 in Rías Baixas, a dozen in Ribeiro, 20-25 in Ribeira Sacra, perhaps 20 in Valdeorras and a couple in Monterrei. And just outside the gates of

Galicia, I have visited and tasted in some 20 bodegas in Bierzo. I have returned to a number of these bodegas as many as 5-10 times!!

And I have worn out many pairs of road warrior shoes walking in the vineyards of Spain with the viticulturists and winemakers. One Spanish wine figure accused me of not knowing anything about Spanish vineyards. I had albariza dust on my shoes before that pompous jerk was born.

Pepe Peñin likes to characterize me as “a wine romantic.”  He has told me that on a few occasions. When it comes to Spain, I still confess after all these years to still being somewhat of a passionate, enthusiastic romantic about certain aspects of the country and its people and I hope I never lose that, but I am out there in the trenches with the real artisan winemakers on most trips and I am just not into wineries so commercial that they could just as well be making athletic shoes. In fact, some of them would better serve the world if they did make shoes instead of the type of wines they are making, as I have heard so often, “wines the market is asking for.” 

I can’t wait to see what kind of wines some of these bodegas are going to make for what the Chinese market is going to be asking for.  I once had a misguided American lawyer ask me to taste a wine blind at his home.  It was awful.  He delighted in showing me a Chinese wine that had a serpent in the bottle.  This could augur well for Extremadura, because there is a wine or liqueur from there with a snake in the bottle. 

When was your first visit to Rioja?

During the 1970s when I lived in the south of Spain, La Rioja came to represent an oasis to me during the hot, rainless summers of Andalucia, my adopted home.

By early July, as you know, the heat settles in over a large portion of Spain.  The sun bears down relentlessly, driving millions of Spaniards to the beaches and cool mountain resorts.  Coinciding with this time of year is the annual trek to Pamplona, where Hemingway’s lost souls come from all over the world to see the sun rise on yet another Fiesta de San Fermin.  Since my former wife Diana and I counted ourselves among the admirers of the venerable Ernest’s fiesta, we too joined the migration each year.

We always set out at least a week before the commencement of festivities at Pamplona, so we could explore the Spanish countryside along the way.  On one of these trips, we discovered the Rioja and it became our favorite place to pass some quiet time before surrendering to the wild, weeklong San Fermífestivities at Pamplona, where peace, tranquillity, and sleep are rare commodities, and not even particularly desirable ones at that.  We looked forward to La Rioja, where we could taste fine wines in cool bodegas, sample superb country cuisine, and enjoy the scenery, history, and milder climate of this high mountain valley.

To avoid some of the scorching road heat of summertime Spain, we would leave Mijas, our pueblo on a mountain over-looking the Costa del Sol, in late afternoon.  We would usually drive into the wee hours of morning to escape the steady daytime flow of maniacal North African drivers hellbent on reaching the beaches and homeward-bound ferries of the southern coast. This was before the construction of Spain’s system of autopistas, so we were driving on two-lane roads.  Apart from diminishing one’s chances of being maimed by a Peugeot, the night offered some relief from being stuck behind the long queues of slow, laboring Spanish trucks belching noxious black exhaust.

After stopping for a brief sleep at a Valdepeñas pensión, we would drive on through Madrid in the early morning hours to reach the ancient Castilian capital of Burgos – the terrain of El Cid – by midday.  From there we headed East towards the Rioja.  In less than an hour, as the road climbed, the vegetation became increasingly verdant, the air fresher and cooler.  The greener landscape, now showing some vineyards, soothes the soul as well as the body as the heavy layers of oppressive road heat peel away.  The promise of a thundershower bringing the cool, night breezes of the Rioja would soon put the dust of the southern summer behind us.

On one occasion, we had written the venerable firm of R. López de Heredia in Haro, letting them know that we again wished to visit their bodega.  The reply had come in the charming, graceful Spanish of a more genteel age.  It went something like, “…We cannot tell you what joy the news of your imminent visit has produced in our bodega.  It would be our great pleasure to receive you.”

We had arranged for two old friends, the late Alice Hall, the dowager empress of American bullfight aficionados, from Milledgeville, Georgia and Carolyn Moyer of Davis, California to join us in a tour of the Rioja on our way to Pamplona.  By 10:00 on the morning of our visit, after a breakfast of rolls and café con leche in the Café Suizo in La Plaza de la Paz in Haro, the four of us were down in the centenarian bodegas of R. Lopez de Heredia for our “second breakfast”– a wine tasting.  Here, in surroundings as incredible as any I have known in the world of wine, Sr. Anastasio Gútierrez Angulo, the firm’s export manager, let us taste some of the firm’s twenty-year old reservas–wines made in the style of a different era–wines of yesterday.

The bodega had all the trappings of a nineteeth-century operation patterned on the chais of Bordeaux– the winery workers even wear blue coveralls as many of the staff at French chateaux still do.  In time-honored fashion, barrels were (and still are today) crafted in the winery’s own cooperage.  We saw workers cracking eggs from the bodega’s chicken farm to get fresh egg whites for fining the wines.  Other employees laboriously filled bottles with reserva wines by hand and corked them with a hand-operated corking device.

Anastasio led us through a man-made maze of cool, barrel-filled limestone caves to the deepest part of the bodega – – the room known at R. López de Heredia as the cementerio–the cemetery.  The cementerio is the resting place of the old vintage reservas dating from the founding of the firm in 1877.  This cellar gets its name from the storage bins lining its walls, which very much resemble the burial niches in the Roman-plan cemeteries of Spain.  Bin after bin was filled with dusty bottles from the greatest vintages of the past.  At one end of the room, a large round wooden table’s centerpiece was a huge, gnarled, cobweb-covered old grapevine surrounded by bottles of wine.

Our host, Anastasio, had selected two gran reservas from the fine 1954 vintage for us to taste.  The first was Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva, a lovely, elegant Bordeaux-style wine of breed and complexity.  The second wine was a more intense, dark ruby wine in a burgundy bottle, Viña Bosconia Gran Reserva, which was showing signs of evolving into a big, warm, rich wine – – aterciopelado (velvety).  The Viña Bosconia had a particularly beautiful nose, one which reminded me of a wonderful phrase that Michael Wigram, an English banker a bullfight aficionado, had used to describe another 1954 reserva at a luncheon during the Feria de Sevilla in 1973, “Gets a nice bloom on it after nineteen years, don’t you think?”

These wines did indeed have “a nice bloom” on them.  They were wines to be enjoyed, not merely tasted and spit on the floor of the bodega, so we sipped them while Anastasio gave us the most charming description of Rioja winemaking that I have ever heard.

 First he described the normal processes of vinification, barrel aging, bottling, and so forth for the bodega’s “bread and butter” – the table wines made to sell in the fourth, fifth, and sixth years after the vintage.  Then, when he came to the subject of gran reservas, the classic Rioja reservas from exceptional vintages, he began to speak of the wine as a living thing.

In this place called the cemetery, he brought his wines to life.  Speaking softly, but with passion in his beautifully enunciated Castilian Spanish, he described the wine’s “education.”

“You see,” he began, “in the beginning, a gran reserva is like a young man.  He gets a proper `education’ here in the bodega, then is bottled and becomes a young caballero.  At about 25 years he reaches the peak of his youth, then he mellows out to about the age of, say, 35-40, when he gradually begins to tail off.  However, some of these fellows do well even after fifty.  A few years ago the owners allowed three bottles of the 1914s to be opened for a celebration.  The second bottle was in fine condition.”

It would be a day to remember – Anastasio’s wonderful analogy and his beautiful wines were just the beginning.  We were four good friends glowing with wine and in the mood for fiesta.  At Merendero Toni in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, we lingered over one of those wonderful Spanish lunches: a simple salad of garden-ripened tomatoes, lettuce, and onions at the peak of their flavor, succulent baby lamb chops al sarmiento (grilled over grapevine prunings), crisp fried potatoes, and lots of Rioja tinto. 

After lunch, with a tape playing the wonderful jotas of the Basque country, we took the breathtaking drive up to the Balcon de la Rioja for the splendid view of the entire Rioja valley.  Diana and Alice, euphoric from the wine, the food, and the splendor of the day, danced the jota on the mountain as a Spanish family stared incredulously at two foreigners – Alice a septuagenarian at that  – performing the regional dance of northern Spain in their own private fiesta.

What was Rioja like back then and how has it changed?

I think my previous answer describes a little of what it was like back then, but one can still have those kinds of experiences since many of them are so often people based.  Corrida days in Haro, the Battle of Wine outside Haro, Logroño’s San Mateo fiesta and numerous experiences that can be had in La Rioja–in Ezcaray and the southern mountains, Santo Domingo and in wine towns such as Briones, San Vicente de la Sonsierra and many other places–still make the region a magical place for those who know the area, its history, its bodegas and its wonderful restaurants and tapas bars. 

Some people see the changes that modernity has wrought and lament the days of the past, but I have seen Spain grow and modernize over a period of more than forty years and I have come to realize that the question should not be about whether traditional or modern is best, it should be about what is really good.   For too long, the priority of modern Spaniards was to throw off the shackles of the Franco era and plant both feet in the modern era.  This caused the criteria to be skewed.  There was a general feeling that anything new, modern, innovative had to be good by definition and therefore most relics of the past must not be so good, when the real criteria should be: What is based on quality is good, what is not, is not.  Just being new, modern and innovative is not all necessarily good.  Some innovation turns out to be quite bad and sometimes it is in bad taste. 

The same goes for some traditions, which often are used to keep people anchored in the past–the status quo is more to the point–though the best of customs, which were at sometime in history, new, modern and innovative, tend to survive and for good reason.

In wine and gastronomy, I have long maintained that it is not tradition nor innovation that is the question.  The question is: Is it good?  For instance, I believe that Spanish modernized traditional cuisine is some of the best food on the planet.  There are great traditional cuisine restaurants in Spain and also some very bad ones.  And as we know, there are a number of exceptional Spanish, Basque and Catalan cocina de vanguardia restaurants, many inspired by elBulli, but I think it is telling that many of the vanguardia maestros are opening tapas bars and restaurants with modernized and evolved traditional dishes on the menu.

As far as modern Rioja wines go, it is the same.  There are great tradition-based, evolved wines in la Rioja and there are good modern wines, but too many of the modern wines seem to be imitating wines from such places as Napa Valley or even nearby Ribera del Duero, making a style of wines that they think the market is asking for.  Now wine drinkers in droves are turning against overripe, overly alcoholic, overoaked and over-manipulated wines, which for the last decade or so have bordered on religion for most modern wine writers.  Now, that change is in the air and Parkerismo is on the wane, it will be interesting to see how all those who have steadfastly been proselytizing for such wines will change their deeply held beliefs about how such manipulated wines are actually superior to honest wines that taste like the place from which they come and that drink very well with the food of that region. 

Wines with a true sense of place–it can be terroir or it can be a style of wine like Sherry or Champagne or like La Rioja wines used to be–are unique, not copies.  And when unique wines find a successful place in markets outside their regions, their long-term success is dependent on that uniqueness that sets them apart, not a sameness which makes them as generic as Brand X and thus much more sensitive to price competition.

You have always said that your favorite Riojas are from the ‘Barrio de la Estación’ in Haro. What do you like about them?

The great gran reservas like Cune Imperial, Cune Viña Real, Viña Tondonia, Viña Bosconia, Muga Prado Enea, La Rioja Alta’s Viña Ardanza, ‘904′ and ‘890′ and, outside the Barrio de la Estación, Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina and the great Monte Real, Marqués de Riscal and Marqués de Murrieta Castillo de Igay were fabulous wines, each distinctly different from one another, but all long-lived (I have had many that were from 40-70 years of age and still vibrant and delicious).  These were remarkable wines by any discerning wine lover’s standards.  And as recently as October 7th, at Arzak, Mariano, Arzak’s sommelier found a wonderful Bodegas Bilbainas Viña Pomal 1962, which he served us in honor of the birth year of American Iron Chef Michael Chiarello (Bottega, Napa Valley).

Do you think it’s been a mistake for Rioja winemakers to follow the new world trends of high alcohol and a meaty structure? Have they dialed this back or are a lot of wines still too modern?

Now that we are in very tough economic times both in Europe and the United States, this approach to winemaking can be disastrous for all but a few who can pull it off.  And anyone who wants to sell such wines in the future had better brush up on their Chinese, because Western markets are turning against such excesses big time.  The market is also   turning against wines in heavy bottles, which are very expensive to make and transport,  ecologically unwise,  and, more often than not, have been shown to hold wines that are not only expensive, they are usually not very much fun to drink and are often the opposite of what a wine with charm, grace, harmony and balance should be. 

In my estimation, it is not the time-honored wines of La Rioja that the Barrio de la Estacion, Riscal, Bodegas Riojanas and Murrieta were once known for that will be considered the greatest dinosaurs in the near future, it will be the overwrought, Parkerized, monster wines that never really existed a decade or so ago.  (By the way, what do the makers of such wines not understand about the value of second glass and second bottle sales, which are much more likely to happen–by multiples of multiples–with wines that have 12% – 13%, are not fat and overripe or overoaked?)

Most of the garnacha here has been grubbed up and replaced with tempranillo. What has garnacha contributed historically to our wines and can Rioja reds make it as single varietal tempranillos?

More to the point, “Most of the garnacha here has been grubbed up and replaced with a clone of tempranillo that is prolific and produces insipid wines that need over-ripeness and new oak flavors to make their point, are getting less and less palatable by the day to the broad market out there and for which a lot of marketing dollars have to be spend to sell such wines.

Garnacha was an essential component in a number of great Rioja wines such as Cune Viña Real.  Garnacha and mazuelo added to Tempranillo made many Rioja wines great, complex, multi-faceted and delicious.  Who decided that monovarietalism was a virtue?  The press, who are not winemakers, nor the real consumers of wines?  Oh, well, as Navarra has realized since they ripped out a lot of their exceptional garnacha vines, Aragón, now dubbing itself as the Kingdom of Garnacha, is not that far away.  And should Rioja’s bodegueros change their minds about blending other grapes into the increasingly uninterested tempranillo clone now planted in so much of the region, perhaps a pipeline to Campo de Borja, Cariñena or Calatayud should be considered.

Is there any hope for white Rioja?

The future for Rioja white wines, which I view as extremely dim, will probably have to have its roots in the past.  Viura is an insipid grape.  Among the many wines that I have sampled that were made from that grape from across Spain (counting those that go under the name Macabeo, Macabeu), I have yet to encounter a great one.  (I don’t count the aged R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Blancos, which owe as much to winemaking technique and to the blend of other grapes as to Viura itself.) 

Basilio Izquierdo’s B. de Basilio Blancos are the best white wines that I have tasted in La Rioja, but the true base for those wines is Garnacha Blanca.   Any future hope for white wines in La Rioja should be based on the blends prevalent in the past: Viura with Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia. 

And rather than planting Chardonnay and trying to make more insipid, copy-cat white wine that has to be manipulated in the cellars to have any interest at all, I would strongly consider planting good clones of Godello in the higher elevations.  Now, there, in my humble opinion, is a grape with a future.

The unusual 2011 harvest in Rioja

Last Friday the Rioja Regulatory Council released the official figures for the 2011 harvest.  In my opinion, this year was unusual for three reasons.

The harvest started and ended earlier than usual due to a warm, sunny spring and summer. This is positive because the weather often turns cold and rainy towards the end of the harvest, especially in the higher parts of Rioja Alta and Alavesa.  In fact, this is why a lot of wineries from Haro have vineyards in Rioja Baja – to blend the fully ripe grapes from the Baja with those with lower sugar from the western end of the region.

Abundant sunshine and high temperatures made for exceptionally high sugar but unripe tannins.  Throughout the summer and early fall, vineyard managers and winemakers complained that they had to decide whether to pick when sugar content would produce 13-13,5% alcohol but green tannins or wait for the tannins to ripen with potential alcohol reaching 16% and even higher.

It will be interesting to taste the wines once they’re bottled.

The third difference is the exceptional health of the grapes with very little incidence of mildew.

According to the Council, 383 million kgs of grapes will be protected by the D.O. Ca. Rioja, compared with 395 million kgs in 2010.

I estimate that sales will be about 274 million liters, 2,6% higher than 2010.

 My projection of the figures (‘000,000 liters):

                                                                      2011                  2010

 Production of wine                               268                 255,9

Shipments                                                 274                 267,1

End-of-year inventory                      844,6               842,6

Ratio Inventory to shipments           3,08                3,15

(years)

From the macro point of view, it doesn’t appear that much has changed from 2010 to 2011.  The harvest is slightly smaller, sales are marginally higher and the inventory to shipments ratio is about 3,1 years.

This last number is widely used in Rioja to determine pressure on grape and wine supply.  The Council figures that a ratio of 2,8 to 3,2 years is optimum.  If it’s lower, it means a shortage of wine and higher grape and wine prices.  On the contrary, if it’s higher, too much wine is available and prices are likely to fall.

 Given the fact that the 2011 number is near the upper end of the scale and sales are stagnant, grape and wine prices will probably remain low.  As I’ve said before, this is good for consumers but unfortunate for farmers.

(Photo credit:  Logroño Turismo)

The Race to the Bottom

One unfortunate consequence of the current economic crisis is the overdependence on price cutting in order to sell.  I think that many wineries were caught off-balance when the crisis struck in 2008 and, not having put a positioning strategy in place, have been forced to rely on increasing discounts to customers.

It may sound strange, but the loser is the consumer.

My wife and I spend most of our weekends near Santander on the north coast, about two hours north of Rioja, and enjoy having a few glasses of wine before lunch on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays with our friends.  Both of the bars we frequent, within walking distance of our house, have the annoying habit of changing wine brands every month or so and each new brand is worse than its predecessor, apparently because the bar gets a better deal.  The prices to consumers don’t change, however.  We’ve offered to find better wines for the bars and are willing to pay more for them but the owners stubbornly resist, thinking that we will keep drinking the garbage offered to us.

Last Saturday was the last straw.  We were offered glasses of a white wine (from a region other than Rioja) that was totally undrinkable.  It was from a well-recognized denomination of origin but I wonder how it was ever given the seal of approval to be called as such.

I don’t like to sermonize, but can’t help but wonder when this is going to stop.  Today you can buy whites from this D.O. for one euro a bottle (and unaged Rioja for not much more).  The foreseeable consequences of this short-sighted policy are driving more consumers away from wine toward drinks with more consistent quality such as beer and more bankrupt wineries.

We’ve decided to take matters into our own hands and drive a couple of miles down to the village for our pre-lunch ritual rather than drink near where we live. We’d rather pay more for wine we enjoy than drink bad wine for the sake of saving a little on each round.

I hope the bars near our house get the message.